The Aftermath of 3,783 Layoffs: What Will Philadelphia Schools Look Like?

Last Friday--June 7--was a dreary, rainy day in Philadelphia. A cruel foreshadowing, perhaps, for the announcement that would shock Philadelphians and educators everywhere later that afternoon.

At 4:30 PM, the news broke: 3,783 members of the School District of Philadelphia community were laid off. Three thousand. Seven hundred. Eighty-three. People.

What would a school look like without these folks?

Walk into the office at Julia de Burgos, my North Philadelphia K-8 school, on any given morning at 7:00 am, and there to greet you with a smile (always!) is Ms. Sonnie. Sonnie has been our secretary since 2002, our building's first year. She is as much of a defining component of our school as are the beautiful, sunlit atriums on each floor. A very common question in our school is, "I don't know--did you ask Sonnie if she knows?" And she usually does.

Ms. Sonnie, a 15-year veteran of the District, is one of the folks that Mr. Fred Rogers so affectionately referred to as "the helpers." She is always willing to go beyond the requirements to make sure that teachers and staff at de Burgos have what we need to educate our children. And she does not separate herself from that responsibility; they are her children too. In fact, her pride and joy, her grandson, graduated from de Burgos last year, and she was elated.

Recently, I saw her consoling a crying parent. She looked over at me after the mom left and said, "She just is going through something. She'll be okay." And when Sonnie says someone or something will be okay, you believe it, because she will do everything in her power to make it true.

Sonnie has forged relationships with parent volunteers, community members, and of course, staff over the years. She is indispensable. I cannot remember a day in my 9 years at de Burgos that Sonnie has been absent (in fact, I'm pretty sure she never has been!). Once she came in late because of an appointment, and she must have been stopped ten times on her way down the hall. "Ms. Sonnie! We were worried! So glad you're here!"

Clearly, Sonnie is an extraordinary person and extremely dedicated to her job. However, I believe this dedication is the norm in our system. As much as I sing Sonnie's praises, I am certain there are teachers in 200+ other schools that would say the same for their secretaries.

Yet, Ms. Sonnie was laid off.

The same goes for our Assistant Principal. Ms. Shriver, with 17 years in the District, has been our Assistant Principal for several years, before which she was our lead teacher, and before that she was a kindergarten teacher. She is the point person for just about anything you can think of! Kids are constantly stopping her in the hallway with requests small and large, and teachers do the same. I imagine if she wrote down the requests that she fields all day, a day's work would be several pages long. Ms. Shriver does it all with devotion and commitment, and with a smile on her face. As she works on our reorganization plans for next year, she does so with the knowledge that she is not in those plans.

Because, Ms. Shriver, too, has been laid off.

The same is true for counselors. I could write another piece entirely devoted to Mrs. Padron, our counselor. She is constantly in classrooms assisting students in need, and her name is one of the most popular ones to be called over the walkie-talkies. Everyone turns to her when they just don't know the words to get through to a student. And again, she is the norm, not the exception.

And Mrs. Padron, too, was laid off.

The list goes on. The members of the de Burgos staff that were laid off, 12 total, are not superfluous. With our school set to receive 250 or more students from the closing Fairhill School, it is simply unthinkable that our budget is slashed so severely, and that we are losing some of the core members of our community.

I can't say I have all of the answers for the funding crisis in the School District of Philadelphia. What I can say is that our schools cannot open without these people. Our students already are at the mercy of a lack of resources. They cannot afford another cut. Ultimately, we must make the decision to do whatever it takes to educate our children. We are quickly traveling down a disastrous road of cuts and austerity, and the direction we are taking has consequences that will be felt for generations.

There is no one right solution for solving this crisis, but there is one right answer: every child in every neighborhood in Philadelphia deserves the world. And we must provide it to them.